In the last three decades, protections for LGBT people’s rights have advanced rapidly in many countries and regions. However, rising populist authoritarianism poses a significant threat to this progress because abolishing sexual freedom is often at the heart of repressive political projects. The progress and backsliding in my home country, Colombia, illustrates the process of using democracy to erode rights.
In 2016, Colombia seemed like a legislative paradise for LGBT people. That year, a pinnacle of legislative success was a Constitutional Court ruling that secured a range of family rights for same-sex couples, including marriage and adoption, and protection of LGBT students in schools. But toward the end of the year, there was another exceptional event. In an effort to end a brutal, decades-long armed conflict, the Andean country held a plebiscite on a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Unexpectedly, a small majority of 50.2 percent rejected the agreement after a bitter and polarizing campaign.
A key issue that mobilized the “no” electorate was the moral panic generated by the inclusion of gender, women rights, and LGBT-related provisions in the peace agreement, including a definition of gender and the explicit recognition of these populations as victims of the armed conflict. Extremist groups decried these provisions as imposing a “gender ideology,” tapping into a recent controversy about gender and sexuality education in schools.
Following the suicide of a queer student who had experienced severe bullying and discrimination in school, the Constitutional Court directed the government to carry out an existing law detailing measures to protect LGBT students from discrimination and to recognize diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity as a principle of comprehensive sexuality education. Conservative groups attacked this decision as imposing “gender ideology” on children, and social media became a battleground where the fate of Colombia’s peace was intertwined with the fate of LGBT people.
Many Colombians followed the conservative groups’ reasoning and conflated the peace agreement and the Court’s decision, believing the peace deal itself advanced “gender ideology” through gender and LGBT inclusive provisions. Again, social media—this time coupled with ballots—was the site of this mobilization. Political actors disseminated outrageous falsehoods regarding the peace agreement on social media networks, including WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter, all of which impacted the public perception of the plebiscite. Notably, several fueled the idea that if the peace agreement were approved, “gender ideology” would be included in the Constitution and society would be “homosexualized.”
This juxtaposition between success in court and the mobilization of anti-LGBT sentiment on the streets left me questioning the efficacy of using law reform as a primary strategy to advance LGBT rights. Six years after the rejection of the peace agreement referendum, I can see that what happened in Colombia was not an isolated incident; instead, it has now formed an integral part of a new authoritarian playbook that manipulates democratic institutions to undermine the rights of women and LGBT people.
Anti-LGBT movements develop national, regional, and global strategies that rely on political authoritarianism, the spread of misinformation, and grassroots mobilization. A notable rhetorical feature of the anti-gender movement is its use of human rights language to undermine LGBT rights, for example, by using religious freedom or parental rights as a basis for attacking minority rights. This political homophobia approach is the major threat to LGBT rights worldwide.
In many parts of the world, as never before, the legal recognition of the rights of LGBT people is gaining ground, and the long arc of history shows rapid progress, primarily triggered by democratic institutions such as elected officials or independent judges. One benchmark is the gradual decriminalization of same-sex conduct, another is the extension of marriage equality. However, this legal evolution coexists with threats such as those witnessed in Colombia. Well-organized groups mobilize around abstract and unfounded fears, articulating their conservative agendas in the frame of “gender ideology” that would somehow undermine the family and corrupt children, exploiting polarized elections, constitutional changes, or institutional crises.
Moreover, these actors are often aligned with authoritarian political projects that use social media to spread misinformation and smear campaigns. They instrumentalize anxieties around children and their welfare to garner popular support, invoking inveterate, dangerous stereotypes of LGBT people as immoral corrupters of children. In some contexts, these actions usher in anti-LGBT legislation and, at the same time, bolster the political fortunes of authoritarian leaders.
This new form of anti-LGBT sentiment is codified in legislation that focuses on censoring public expressions of identity, including speech on sexual orientation and gender identity, justified under the pretext of “protecting children.” The Russian “gay propaganda” law is a classic example of political homophobia that curbs the rights of LGBT youth and has a broader, stifling effect on the public expression of identity.
In recent years, Hungary has enacted laws banning discussions on LGBT issues, ended legal gender recognition for transgender and intersex people, and amended the constitution to define marriage as a heterosexual union and to functionally prohibit same-sex adoption. Seeking to justify its homophobic rhetoric the government held a homophobic referendum coinciding with national election day in April.
It was declared void because civil society encouraged the citizens to cast invalid votes after this action of the organizations; the National Election Committee fined some organizations for opposing the referendum.
Poland, and more recently Romania, have taken steps to adopt comparable legislation. A bill before the Ghanaian parliament that forbids any form of support or speech regarding LGBT rights similarly discriminates against LGBT people.
In the Americas, lawmakers have increasingly proposed anti-LGBT legislation, such as in the United States where in the last five years there has been a spate of laws primarily targeting trans and non-binary youth in states including Texas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. And in Brazil, Human Rights Watch analyzed 217 bills and laws that restrict comprehensive sexuality education, including information on sexual orientation and gender identity, or ban alleged “indoctrination.” In Guatemala and Perú lawmakers have proposed bills with similar terms, though in Guatemala the bill was withdrawn.
We should view the struggle for LGBT rights as part of a broader struggle against authoritarianism: a political regime founded on the erosion of human rights and freedoms, particularly of the most vulnerable groups. We should invest more in understanding the tactics that pro-authoritarian groups use, especially on social media. We should also develop recommendations and strategies to end the harmful misuse of social media and hold tech companies accountable for allowing the spread and amplification of damaging, bigoted messages.
Finally, any legal actions and progress should continue building on the grassroots mobilization of LGBT people and our allies. As is, law without social mobilization is vulnerable to authoritarian backlash.